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Endgame elusive as West tries to force Russia out of Ukraine

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By Matthew Lee in Washington

WASHINGTON (AP) — As Western leaders congratulate themselves for their speedy and severe responses to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, they’re also scratching their heads with uncertainty about what their actions will accomplish.

The U.S., NATO and the European Union have focused on strangling Russia’s economy and arming Ukrainian fighters. But it’s unclear how this will stop the war. No one knows what President Vladimir Putin is thinking, but there’s no reason to believe that even the toughest measures will shatter his determination to force the Western-leaning former Soviet republic back into Moscow’s orbit.

They may not say it publicly, but U.S. officials and their NATO allies don’t see a breaking point for Putin — either an economic toll so severe or battlefield losses so devastating — that would convince him to order his troops home and allow Ukraine’s leaders to govern in peace.

“Ukraine will never be a victory for Putin,” Biden said as he announced a U.S. ban on Russian energy imports on Tuesday. But Ukraine might not be a complete defeat for Putin either.

The sanctions and military aid may have been effective in slowing the Russian advance in Ukraine and perhaps discouraging Putin from targeting other countries. They may serve as a warning for other powerful countries tempted to target weaker neighbors. But Western officials have been vague about how the actions will end the fighting.

One of the most direct answers came from the third-ranking U.S. diplomat, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland. She said Tuesday that internal, rather than external, pressure on Putin will be more effective.

“The way this conflict will end is when Putin realizes that this adventure has put his own leadership standing at risk with his own military, with his own people,” she testified before Congress. “He will have to change course, or the Russian people take matters into their own hands.”

A more provocative remark came from Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who called for the Russian people to assassinate Putin. The White House quickly distanced itself from that comment.

In fact, there is no sign yet that his grip on power has loosened. There’s also the frightening uncertainty about how a nuclear-armed Putin, if cornered, would respond to a genuine threat to his power if one were to arise.

And no one is counting on an outright military victory by Ukraine. While Ukrainian fighters have put up a remarkable defense and are determined to fight for as long as Russian forces remain on their soil, they are badly outgunned and would be hard-pressed to push Russian troops back across the border. Meanwhile, NATO nations aren’t about to risk triggering World War III by joining the fight in defense of a non-member state.

Against this backdrop, a diplomatic solution appears unlikely. Russia has only hardened its demands since launching the invasion last month and attempts at diplomacy by French, Israeli and Turkish leaders have thus far proven fruitless. The top U.S. and Russian diplomats aren’t even talking to each other and recent lower-level communications have focused almost entirely on the expulsions of diplomats from their two countries.

“Nobody knows how this is going to end and it’s going to take some time to see how the Russians decide to react to the obvious dead-end that they’ve got themselves into,” said Jeff Rathke, a European expert and president of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

“Until the Russians are ready to negotiate something serious and real, there’s not much you can do,” he said. He added that the U.S. and Europe should resist the temptation to negotiate themselves with Putin over Ukraine, especially as the economic costs of isolating Moscow mount, particularly in Europe. “The endgame has to be decided by the Ukrainians in terms of what they will accept,” he said.

“I can’t see this ending in any way good for Ukraine as long as Putin is in power,” said Ian Kelly, a retired U.S. diplomat and former ambassador to Georgia who now teaches international relations at Northwestern University. “He’s put out his maximalist goal, which is basically surrender, and that’s something the Ukrainians aren’t going to be able to accept and the Russians are not going to be able to implement.”

“Withdrawal for him is death. It’s too weak,” Kelly said.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken acknowledged the limits of the West’s ability to end the conflict.

“What we’re looking at is whether or not President Putin will decide to try to finally cut the losses that he’s inflicted on himself and inflicted on the Russian people. We can’t decide that for him,” he said Wednesday.

Appearing beside Blinken, British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss suggested the Western response may go beyond hopes of getting Russia out of Ukraine.

“Putin must fail,” she said. “We know from history that aggressors only understand one thing, and that is strength. We know that if we don’t do enough now, other aggressors around the world will be emboldened. And we know that if Putin is not stopped in Ukraine, there will be terrible implications for European and global security.”

With the uncertainty, U.S. officials have said they are convinced of only one thing: that an angry and frustrated Putin will pour more troops and firepower into Ukraine and the bloodshed will get worse before the situation approaches any return to normalcy.

CIA Director William Burns, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, told lawmakers this week he believes Putin has profoundly miscalculated the resistance and determination that his forces would meet from Ukrainians. He also said it may soon dawn on Putin that he will not be able to occupy Ukraine or impose a Russia-friendly regime there without facing years, if not decades, of fierce and bloody opposition.

“Where that leads, I think, is for an ugly next few weeks in which he doubles down with scant regard for civilian casualties, in which urban fighting can get even uglier,” Burns said.

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conflict

N Korea fires 23 missiles, prompting air raid alert in South

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By Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Air raid sirens sounded on a South Korean island and residents evacuated to underground shelters after North Korea fired more than 20 missiles Wednesday, at least one of them in its direction and landing near the rivals’ tense sea border. South Korea quickly responded by launching its own missiles in the same border area.

The launches came hours after North Korea threatened to use nuclear weapons to get the U.S. and South Korea to “pay the most horrible price in history” in protest of ongoing South Korean-U.S. military drills that it views as an invasion rehearsal. The White House maintained that the United States has no hostile intent toward North Korea and vowed to work with allies to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

The North’s barrage of missile tests also came as world attention was focused on South Korea following a weekend Halloween tragedy that saw more than 150 people killed in a crowd surge in Seoul in what was the country’s largest disaster in years.

South Korea’s military said North Korea launched at least 23 missiles — 17 in the morning and six in the afternoon — off its its eastern and western coasts on Wednesday. It said the weapons were all short-range ballistic missiles or suspected surface-to-air missiles. Also Wednesday, North Korea fired about 100 artillery shells into an eastern maritime buffer zone the Koreas created in 2018 to reduce tensions, according to South Korea’s military.

The 23 missiles launched is a record number of daily missile tests by North Korea, some experts say.

One of the ballistic missiles was flying toward South Korea’s Ulleung island before it eventually landed 167 kilometers (104 miles) northwest of the island. South Korea’s military issued an air raid alert on the island, according to the South’s Joint Chiefs of Staff. South Korean media published photos of island residents moving to underground shelters.

Hours later, South Korea’s military said it lifted the air raid alert on the island. South Korea’s transport ministry said it has closed some air routes above the country’s eastern waters until Thursday morning in the wake of the North Korean launches.

That missile landed 26 kilometers (16 miles) away from the rivals’ sea border. It landed in international waters off the east coast of South Korea. South Korea’s military said it was the first time a North Korean missile has landed so close to the sea border since the countries’ division in 1948.

“This is very unprecedented and we will never tolerate it,” the Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement.

In 2010, North Korea shelled a front-line South Korean island off the peninsula’s western coast, killing four people. But the weapons used were artillery rockets, not ballistic missiles whose launches or tests are banned by multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Later Wednesday, South Korean fighter jets launched three air-to-surface, precision-guided missiles near the eastern sea border to show its determination to get tough on North Korean provocations. South Korea’s military said the missiles landed in international waters at the same distance of 26 kilometers (16 miles) north of the sea border as the North Korean missile fell earlier Wednesday.

It said it maintains a readiness to win “an overwhelming victory” against North Korea in potential clashes.

“North Korea firing missiles in a way that sets off air raid sirens appears intended to threaten South Koreans to pressure their government to change policy,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul. “North Korea’s expanding military capabilities and tests are worrisome, but offering concessions about alliance cooperation or nuclear recognition would make matters worse.”

The Joint Chiefs of Staff earlier identified three of the North Korean weapons launched as “short-range ballistic missiles” fired from the North’s eastern coastal town of Wonsan, including the one that landed near the sea border.

North Korean short-range weapons are designed to strike key facilities in South Korea, including U.S. military bases there.

In an emergency meeting with top security officials, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol ordered officials to take swift unspecified steps to make North Korea face consequences for its provocation. He said he would consider the North Korean missile’s landing near the border “a virtual violation of (our) territorial waters.”

During the meeting, officials also lamented that the North Korean missile launches came as South Korea is in a mourning period over the crowd crush. They noted this “clearly showed the nature of the North Korean government,” according to South Korea’s presidential office.

Earlier Wednesday, Japanese Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada said at least two ballistic missiles fired by North Korea showed a possibly “irregular” trajectory. This suggests the missiles were the North’s highly maneuverable, nuclear-capable KN-23 missile, which was modeled on Russia’s Iskander missile.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida called North Korea’s continuing missile tests “absolutely impermissible.”

Analyst Cheong Seong-Chang at the private Sejong Institute in South Korea said the danger of armed clashes between the Koreas off their western or eastern coasts is increasing. He said South Korea needs to make “proportional responses” to North Korean provocations, not “overwhelming responses,” to prevent tensions from spiraling out of control and possibly leading the North to use its tactical nuclear weapons.

Animosities on the Korean Peninsula have been running high in recent months, with North Korea testing a string of nuclear-capable missiles and adopting a law authorizing the preemptive use of its nuclear weapons in a broad range of situations. Some experts still doubt North Korea would use nuclear weapons first in the face of U.S. and South Korean forces.

North Korea has argued its recent weapons tests were meant to issue a warning to Washington and Seoul over their joint military drills that it views as an invasion rehearsal, including this week’s exercises.

In a statement released early Wednesday, Pak Jong Chon, a secretary of the ruling Workers’ Party who is considered a close confidant of leader Kim Jong Un, called the Vigilant Storm air force drills “aggressive and provocative.”

“If the U.S. and South Korea attempt to use armed forces against (North Korea) without any fear, the special means of the (North’s) armed forces will carry out their strategic mission without delay,” Pak said, in an apparent reference to his country’s nuclear weapons.

“The U.S. and South Korea will have to face a terrible case and pay the most horrible price in history,” he said.

U.S. and South Korean officials have steadfastly said their drills are defensive in nature and that they have no intentions of attacking North Korea.

“We reject the notion that they serve as any sort of provocation. We have made clear that we have no hostile intent towards (North Korea) and call on them to engage in serious and sustained diplomacy,” White House National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said late Tuesday.

North Korea “continues to not respond. At the same time, we will continue to work closely with our allies and partners to limit the North’s ability to advance its unlawful weapons programs and threaten regional stability,” Watson said.

This year’s Vigilant Storm military exercises are the largest-ever for the annual fall maneuvers, the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said. About 1,600 flights are planned involving 240 U.S. and South Korean fighter jets. The round-the-clock drills, which began Oct. 31, are to continue through Nov. 4 and include warfighting tactics both in the air and on the ground, it said.

___

Associated Press writers Kim Tong-hyung in Seoul, Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo and Aamer Madhani in Washington, D.C. contributed to this report.

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Freeland says comments about Africa aid were not meant to offend

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By Dylan Robertson in Ottawa

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland says she did not mean to offend anyone after saying last week that Africans must be “prepared to die for their democracy,” and hinted that Canada might boost aid for the continent.

“If anyone did find my comments to be insensitive, then I’m very sorry,” Freeland said Monday.

“If … a white western person has offended someone, the first answer is to say, ‘I really didn’t mean to offend you.’”

In a speech last week in Washington, Freeland urged democracies to grow closer through trade and energy ties, in the face of a perilous new world order where autocracies are trying to usurp democracy.

In a question session afterwards, a man who said he works for African Development Bank asked Freeland about western countries hinting at a drop in aid for the continent, in order to fund Ukraine’s needs.

The unnamed man, whom The Canadian Press could not identify, asked Freeland to respond to concerns that this will only increase Russia’s sway in that continent.

Freeland responded that western countries do need to step up and “prove we’re real partners.”

But she also said it is up to African countries to choose their own paths, and rejected the idea that they can simply fall into Russia’s orbit by accident.

“A democracy can only be defended by people themselves if they’re actually prepared to die for their democracy,” she said last week.

The comment led to pushback on social media, and raised eyebrows among Africa experts.

University of Ottawa professor Rita Abrahamsen said Freeland was correct in saying that it’s up to Africans to determine their destiny, but cautioned that the conflict in Ukraine has become a sensitive issue.

“This a strong sense among many African countries that they are being bullied or patronized, or that one is holding aid hostage to support in the UN (forums), for the war in Ukraine,” she said.

“Canada has to be very, very careful here.”

Abrahamsen, the director of the Centre for International Policy Studies, says Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has put economic pressure on the continent.

“Emotions are running high around this on the African continent, and it means that words have to be judged very carefully,” she said.

“We’re looking at a continent where a large part of it … (is) close to famine conditions, acute starvation. We’re looking at immense flooding in large parts of West Africa; we’re looking at a return of military coups.”

Freeland said Monday that the western world needs to recognize that current problems stem from colonization.

“These are challenges that have been imposed from the outside. And I think that means we have a high level of responsibility.”

She hinted that upcoming budgets could include more humanitarian aid for Africa, and noted Canada’s push to reform global financial organizations to better fit the needs of poorer nations.

“We need today, if anything, to step up our engagement with the global south,” she said, referring to developing nations.

“What is important is to take the lead from our African partners, and to listen to them about what it is specifically that is on their agenda, and what specifically they need.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 17, 2022.

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